The nature of experiments

The nature of experiments

The nature of experiments

Swati Salgaocar and Smita Khanna have been friends since childhood and only got together as young adults to explore a mutual passion for design. Salgaocar holds degrees in architecture from the prestigious Yale and Columbia Universities in the US, while Khanna is an alumna of The Architectural Association, London.

Their primary objective, they aver, is “innovation through the intensive study of materials.” Their objects d’art are fashioned from a new sheet material developed from polyester resin embedded with a variety of natural materials to form patterns in single or multiple layers. “We also collaborated with engineers to ensure that the material would work in the way we wanted it to. We find this  homogeneous, composite material exciting because it is customizable in terms of processing, dimensions, colour and aesthetic patterning. Moreover, it can be used in a variety of architectural applications since its properties render it waterproof and suitable for use indoors as well as outdoors albeit in locations that are not exposed to direct sunlight.”
The two women interpreted traditional patterns and motifs in a modern context. They explain that “machining techniques primarily restricted to industrial applications were adapted to push the limits of available materials and processes. A multi-disciplinary approach entailed the borrowing of other techniques and materials from inter-connected fields like fashion, textile processing and woodwork. Unlike superficial lamination which entails binding various layers of materials with adhesive, the poly-resin composite cannot be separated into its constituent parts once it sets. The nature of the resin and its machined processing combined with a variety of embedded materials allows for multiple layers of patterns in three dimensions.”
Salgaocar and Khanna carry the concept of  layering further, as new patterns emerge depending on the positioning and configuration of each piece.

“The absence of premeditated ideas lent an unpredictable dimension to the experiment. It is not sufficient to observe the aesthetic and functional qualities of a material, but it is essential to accurately understand its behaviour, its response to various processing techniques, its reaction to diverse embedded materials, and their combined visual effect as a composite material.”

To recap, the nature of the material is integral to the design process. “Rather than form or function, the material is the starting point... each pattern and motif is interpreted in a modern context to produce updated versions of the traditional, both organic and geometric. The pattern is not constructed only with reference to aesthetics, but rather lends itself to the harmony of form.”

We struggled to comprehend (and digest) the architectural lingo. And duly noted that Salgaocar and Khanna experimented with just about everything from stainless steel to ceramics before turning to resin last December. For resource materials, they looked to Nature, spending “hours in gardens looking for dried leaves and seeds, while the security guards stared.”

Later, in laying out the patterns of  dried leaves in liquefied polyester resin, they worked like some painters are wont to do with paint using their fingernails as tools. This meant they had to go about (perhaps feeling a bit like ascetics, never mind Freddie Kruger of Elm Street) with talons since the craftwork required detailing results that can be obtained optimally with the use of fingernails, instead of other implements.
The result? Furniture which combine aesthetics with utility: Beautiful screens, lamps, tables, side tables and benches embellished with organdie fabric, silk, leaves, seeds and shells among other materials. It is also pricey. Rs 65,000 is the cost of a bench labelled ‘Tree of Life’ emblazoned with an intricate pattern of 200 dried leaves and 232 mother of pearl beads. The use of delicate, iridescent mother-of-pearl as a decorative material can be dated to at least 2500 BC, when Sumerian craftsmen first inlaid shards of the shining mollusk shell alongside lapis lazuli and other coloured stones, in a wooden panel to create the Standard of Ur.

Mother of pearl was also used extensively in China, Thailand and India (mollusk shells were used for window panes in old  Goan homes) and passed on to Turkey. This, we have on the authority of Marco Polo and some Byzantine envoys. Mother of pearl floral leaf inlay can also be seen in Vietnamese craftwork. The Ottoman technique of kunderâri, in which the individual plaques of mother-of-pearl and decorative woods were cut in two planes so as to interlock, without the use of glue, reminds one of ancient Indian temples built of stones interlocked without the use of cement (which is a modern invention).

Now, much in the manner of the West Asian artisans, Salgaocar and Khanna have created opulent effects by inlaying the ebonized furniture surfaces with intricate designs, S&K’s work then is a conscious re-creation of the past and quotes from diverse (neoclassical, colonial) forms which are enhanced by stylised designs in luxurious, yet practical Indian ornamentation.

A Peacock Bench, so called because of the lush, coloured peacock feathers arranged on a layer of four sheets of resin is priced at Rs 45,000. A teak table, its top adorned with red sandalwood seeds, is pegged at Rs 70,000. Yet another table, in the shape of a hexagon, has metal hardware set out in a spiral design. This will set you back by Rs 80,000. The display included side tables decorated with floral and scrolled leafy designs. A large, exquisite screen left me waiting to exhale.